Who were the Onna-Bugeisha and Onna-Musha?
In my series on famous Japanese women and their roles, I would like to build the defense that women in Japan’s history actually had more power then we traditionally give them credit. One of these examples are the Onna-Buheisha/Musha (warrior women) like Tomoe Gozen, Nakano Takeko, and Hagaku Gozen. Onna-buheisha refers to defensive combat women fighters while Onna-Musha refers to offensive combat women fighters.
While we know about the Bushido code and the fierce battles of male samurai, we don’t know as much about female samurai. What we do know of them falls to myths and legends or in the case of Nakano Takeko (April 1847 – 16 October 1868 ) was a real female samurai who fought in the Boshin War.
It is thought in today’s studies that female samurai were actually not that uncommon although their adventures were not written about much due to political and social expectations of the time.
A short history of women warriors
These women were a part of the bushi class or a noble class of feudal samurai. They were given legal right to their own inheritance and could supervise their lands as jito or stewards. Most of the time though, stewardship was given to a second-in-command if helped.
Bushi women were trained in combat, expected to learn martial arts and how to fight with weapons such as the Kaiken dagger, the naginata (a long polearm with a long blade on top), and learned tantojutsu or knife fighting. They could defend their territory or as was common when faced with battle, tie their feet and slit their own throats rather then be captured by the enemy. It was also common for women to drown themselves rather then be captured in siege.
The advent of the Edo Period though saw all samurai divert from participating in physical battles to instead participating in political battles as bureaucrats. With these new roles, women samurai transitioned into still participating in martial arts and weapons training but in a moral sense of duty instead.
According to this Broadly Vice article:
Historian Ellis Amdur notes that once a bushi woman of that time married, it was customary for her to take her naginata with her to her husband’s home, but use it only for moral training. It was an “emblem of her role in society” and a means of instilling “the idealized virtues necessary to be a samurai wife”—strength, subservience, and above all, endurance. “Practice with the naginata,” Amdur continues, “was a means of merging with a spirit of self-sacrifice, of connecting with the hallowed ideals of the warrior class.” Martial arts training, therefore, was a means for a woman to practice servitude towards the men of the household, and cultivate an ordered, domesticated life free of the energies of war.
Despite that the warrior woman was now practicing as a means of spiritual fulfillment, the Edo period saw an increase in schools to teach the naginata to women as a means of self-defense as well.
Tomoe Gozen Sets the Stage
From here on out, I will be referring to Tomoe Gozen and other ladies as by say, “Tomoe” instead of “Gozen” as you might see in other articles. Apparently, “Gozen” can be a term translated into “Lady”, so say, Lady Tomoe. Also there are other women listed as “suchandsuch Gozen”, so to cut down on the confusion…I will be using what I believe to be their first names.
No one really knows much about Tomoe’s origins, although we know about her conquests from the Heike monogatari which describes the Gempei Wars in the 12th century between the two mighty clans of the day, the Taira and the Minamoto.
She is described as being beautiful but also a mighty warrior:
She had “long black hair and a fair complexion, and her face was very lovely; moreover she was a fearless rider, whom neither the fiercest horse nor the roughest ground could dismay, and so dexterously did she handle sword and bow that she was a match for 1,000 warriors, fit to meet either god or devil.”
In fact, she was such a great fighter that Lord Kiso no Yoshinaka (one of the great Minamoto clan leaders who died fighting his cousin Minamoto Yoritomo. Spoiler alert, Yoritomo won the battle against the Taira and established the Kamakura shogunate), made her his commander-in-chief (“ippo no taisho”). This allowed her to lead troops on his behalf.
In relation to Lord Yoshinaka, no one is really quite sure what exact role Tomoe took on, some say his concubine, some say a prostitute, others his wife, so on so forth. But we are quite assured that they were involved romantically in some regards.
Tomoe had many adventures and is written to be very accomplished in battle. Her deeds include at the Battle of Yokotagawara, she defeated and collected heads of at least 7 warriors (bringing home heads of your enemy was sign that you fought hard and it dishonored your enemy not to be buried with the rest of his body). Then three years later at the Battle of Uchide no Ham, she takes only 300 troops to fight against 6,000 enemies and comes out as only one of five survivors.
To say the least, Tomoe kicked butt and took heads.
But Tomoe is most famous for her last known battle. After that she kinda falls off the earth and no one is really quite sure what happened.
At the battle of Awazu, against Minamoto Yoshimoto, Tomoe's lord was mortally wounded. Not sure if he was just looking out for her safety (or some say he didn't want to die with a woman by his side), but he insisted that she flee the battle with his blessing. Tomoe, literal headhunter that she was, refused to go down without a final fight. And as one does, she went straight for the most badass opponent she could find.
Tomoe made no move to go. But Yoshinaka insisted until at last she said: “At least I would like a worthy opponent. I would like to show you, my Lord Kiso, my last combat in your service.” So she lay in wait for an enemy. And there appeared one famous for his strength throughout the province of Musashi, Onda no Hachiro Morishige, with thirty horsemen. Tomoe charged in among them, went straight to Onda no Hachiro, fiercely seized him and pinned his head on the pommel of her saddle, then wrenched it around, cut it off, and tossed it away. After that she removed her armor and escaped toward the East.
Although it says here that she escaped and ran off, other sources speculate that she was captured by Wada Yoshimori and forced to marry him and have his children. Others say she became a nun and died at the age of 91. And then others say she avenged Yoshinaka by taking his head back, and drowning herself in the sea. Again, no one really knows, but nevertheless, she is one of the most well known women warriors.
Hangaku Gozen, another veteran of the Genpei War
Like Tomoe Gozen, Hangaku participated more towards the end of the Genpei war but was known as a fierce warrior. She was skilled with bows and arrows and the naginata, known for taking down opponents with shots to the head or chest or by charging into battle on her horse.
It was during the Kennin Rebellion against the Kamakura Shogunate that she took an arrow to the thigh and was captured by the enemy (Minamoto, in this case her family was aligned with the Taira). She was taken to the Shogun Minamoto no Yoriiye who was intrigued by her reputation as, “fearless as a man and beautiful as a flower “.
Prevented from committing ritual suicide, she instead was made to marry the shogun’s retainer, Asari Yoshito , who lived in the providence of Kai. It’s said they had one child together and not much else is known about her.
Nakano Takeko, loyal to death to the old ways
Unlike her predecessors, we actually have photo evidence of Takeko and we know that she was born in April 1847 and died on October 16, 1868 at the age of 21.
She is famous for her part in the Battle of Aizu during the Boshin War. With the Imperial Meiji Army closing in on the Tokugawa loyalists, the women of Aizu debated all night what to do. Among them were Kouko, Takeko’s mother, and her sister, Yuko, who was only 16. Kouko and Takeko were afraid of sending Yuko, not knowing if she would make it to safety or not. In the end, they decided to bring her along and fight with them in one last stand.
The next morning, Takeko, and her family went out into the rest of Aizu to see who they could rally to their side. In all, they were able to convince 30 or 40 other brave women to fight with them. Together, they all went to the Aizu leadership and asked to be included in the battle.
But the men did not want them to fight with them, and so Takeko lead her small army anyways the next day into battle against the Imperial Army.
The Tokugawa Loyalists were fighting against the Imperial Army because they saw the advancement of Westernization and the welcoming of “barbarians” (I,e Europeans and Americans) into the country as a threat to Japanese society.
During battle, Takeko fought bravely, killing five or six men on her own. But she was taken down by a shot to the chest. In her dying breaths, she told her sister, Yuko, who survived the battle, to cut off her head and bury it so that it would not be taken as a trophy.
Obeying her sister’s wishes, Yuko took her head and buried it at the Hōkai Temple, where a shrine and statue were erected in her honor. Ever since, women in the present day learn how to fight with the naginata and participate in a mock battle and parade in her honor.
Overall, there are many other fierce Japanese women we could talk about here, but for now, these are the most common. If you’d like to look up potentially more women that might be added to this list later on, Wikipedia as a decent list going.
Rejected Princesses- Nakano Takeko
Women Warriors of Early Japan- Rochelle Nowaki
How Onna-Bugeisha, Feudal Japan's Women Samurai, Were Erased From History- By Christobel Hastings Sep 24 2018, 3:10pm (Broadly,Vice)
(The Japan Times, October 9, 2011) Women warriors of Japan By Michael Hoffman
Issac Meyer, History of Japan Podcast, Episode 37, Women Warrior of Japan, January 18, 2014
Wikipedia- Hangaku Gozen
Samurai Archives- Tomoe Gozen